The 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards
The First Shot Fired by a
British Soldier on the Western Front
August 22nd 1914.
The 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards were part of Allenby’s 2nd Cavalry Brigade sent forward to screen for the advancing BEF. At about 6:30 AM on the morning of 22nd August, “C” Squadron, under the command of Major Tom Bridges, was patrolling near the village of Casteau when, through the mist, they saw a body of German Ulans moving toward them on a road just outside the village (They were actually Cuirassiers from the 4th Regt. All German cavalry carried lances at this time.). Something spooked them, for they suddenly stopped and began to turn. Eager to chase them, Captain Charles Hornby commanding 1 and 4 troops pleaded for the chance to take them on. Bridges consented and Hornby, with sword drawn galloped after the Germans. As they entered the village, they came across them in the main street and almost immediately collided with them. The Germans had little luck poking at the Dragoons with their lances as the British cavalrymen slashed at them with their swords. Several of the Cuirassiers saddles were emptied, one by Captain Hornby who ran a German through and probably killed him. Horses on both sides were tumbling because of the slippery cobbles and the Germans managed to get to the other end of the street before dismounting to engage the British with their carbines. At this point Captain Hornby shouted “4th Troop, dismounted, ready for action”. The first to dismount was Corporal Ernest E. Thomas who found a position along a Chateau wall and with bullets flying around him, looked for a target. He found one in the officer who, still mounted and apparently smoking a cigar, was trying to position his troops. Corporal Thomas took aim and pulled the trigger whereby the officer, according to Thomas, fell instantaneously off his horse. “….he fell to the ground, obviously wounded, but whether he was killed or not is a matter I do not think was ever cleared up”.
The Germans saddled up and withdrew followed by Hornby and the other troop, but after another melée in which more Germans were apparently put to the sword, some German hussars appeared on the scene and Bridges ordered Hornby to withdraw. This was fortunate, because the hussars were the vanguard of an entire German cavalry division. Without losing a single man, “C” Squadron returned to the Brigade HQ with five prisoners. Apart from the first shot fired on the Western Front by Corporal Thomas, Captain Hornby was congratulated for being the first soldier to kill the enemy with the new 1908 pattern sword!.
Corporal Thomas, born in 1884 joined the army in 1899 as a drummer boy of his father’s regiment, the Durham Light Infantry, then in India. He transferred to the 4th Dragoon Guards in about 1908. He survived the war as a sergeant winning the Military Medal. He moved with his family to Brighton where he became a Commissionaire at a cinema and remained a celebrity for the rest of his life. He died in 1939.